Have we made conversations about periods a regular topic in the home, or is it something that is kept relatively hidden and, as a result, much of the education about periods is done at school which potentially reduces it to a functional process? If we do, then isn't it easy to see the period as a 'curse', a 'nuisance', a 'nightmare of emotional ups and downs'? This is an interview with Sara Harris from Follow Your Flow is about how to start the conversation around periods in the home.
When should I consider having the conversation with my daughter about her period?
There is no fixed answer to this but I always say that it is doesn’t need to be a ‘talk’ as such, if we are open about how our bodies work right from the start. Getting our period is as natural as breathing, so why do we make it something separate that needs its own special moment?
It’s because of the taboo around menstruation and the stigma that society still carries and we are tainted with, which makes us think periods should be hidden until such time when it needs to be dusted off and brought out of the closet. If a child has grown up with an understanding of the beauty of her body and how it changes, then a period will be as ‘as natural as breathing.’ For most of us, however this is not the case.
What if we were all taught to appreciate the absolute wonder of our body and the changes it goes through as we grow up?
Such appreciation would be great for everyone. Whilst having ‘the talk’ has become a common reality, it is very personal to each parent and their daughter when this needs to occur. Girls these days are getting their periods at younger and younger ages, so depending on the development of your child, this may an indication for you as to when to speak with her about puberty and menstruation. Getting your period is actually the last stage of development. The changes that happen in the body before then, like breasts starting to bud (which can be quite painful for some girls), pubic hair starting to grow and cervical mucus secretions showing as white discharge on her underwear – are all great conversation starters to help your daughter understand the development that is underway in her body as her hormones start to mature.
How do I know if she is ready to have the conversation?
Children are generally quite inquisitive about their bodies, so it’s important that we really listen and respond in a way that is supportive for them at any age and stage. In many ways, they will actually lead the way, it is simply for us to allow enough space to be responsive to what they are asking for.
What if I am afraid to have the conversation?!
This is such a great place to start! Being honest about how, we as adults feel about this conversation and therefore about our own relationship with menstruation is so important. We can say all the right words when it comes to talking with our children but if we have our own hurts and trauma around it then this is what will come through. Open up the conversation with friends, or a counsellor or someone you know and trust, so that you can talk through your relationship with menstruation and any of the uncomfortableness and/or trauma that may still be in your body from when your own period started. By doing this, you are freeing yourself from the stigma and taboo that shrouds society with so many mistruths, and thereby providing the space to see periods in a whole new light, appreciating this incredibly delicate and supportive process that we all go through as women.
How could I start the conversation?
Again, this is very personal. But if we are not constrained by any imposition to keep it all hidden, the conversation will start on its own. Eventually she will ask what the pads in the shopping trolley are; or what it is that you are taking to the bathroom with you; or an add on television; etc. Or she will ask about the changes in her own body. Listen carefully and there will be many opportunities. When we understand the cycle for ourselves, Dad’s included, there are countless ways to start the conversation and talk about our bodies. You could be buying or cooking eggs and then ask if they knew that they also carry tiny eggs inside their bodies. Asking questions, like ‘Did you know how amazing our bodies are?’ ‘Did you know that when you were in my tummy you had 6 million eggs inside your ovaries?’. And then of course, they will ask you what ovaries are! And it all unfolds from there… Like I said, listen carefully and the opportunities are endless.
How do I know when I have given enough information?!
Rather than being a ‘talk’ that has to be this ‘thing’ or a one-off event, let it unfold naturally. Don’t try and bombard them with everything at once. If they start to move on to something else or change the subject, it’s probably indicating that they’ve reached their capacity in that moment. But that doesn’t mean it’s all done and dusted. Give them space, allow things to settle and let them process in their own time and in their own way. It’s great not to have any ideas or pictures about what it should look like or put yourself under any pressure for it to be a certain way. Your daughter may be surprised if this is the first time you have talked about their body in this way, they may rush away groaning with embarrassment. We have all noticed that children don’t always respond in a way we would like, so it’s good to be prepared for that and keep it low key.
Are there any books or pictures you can recommend?
I do feel there is an honouring that is required when we talk about our bodies and this is what is missing from a lot of information that’s ‘out there.’ Our menstrual cycle is something that ultimately needs to be cherished, as does our body. This is the focus of my support for parents, girls and women with Follow your Flow. There is information on the blogs, drawings, programs & courses, providing information and true education on this topic. I have an online ‘Cycle Wise Parents’ course in development which is going to be a very rich resource for parents navigating this time in their children’s lives. You can sign up to the FYF newsletter to receive updates as to when this is released. The FYF Instagram page also has great drawings and pictures that you may find helpful all of which will be included in an upcoming book for young women.
Should I have this conversation with my son as well?
Yes absolutely. I haven’t ever had ‘the talk’ with my son because it has been as ever evolving one. Sometimes I wouldn’t feel up to doing some of the more active things we might normally do and even from a very young age he knew that I had my period and this meant things slowed down a bit. The fact that we keep boys and men out of the conversations further feeds the taboo and that it is something to be hidden. And these boys then grow up not knowing how to be with their partners and with their daughters when they mature and move into this stage. It’s a perpetual cycle of mistruths that keeps boys and men from appreciating the very delicate, cyclical nature of girls and women. And thereby, then appreciating their own sensitivity. I love it when men come to my parent courses. It’s refreshing, very beautiful and they so appreciate being included.
What if I have had a really bad experience with my period, how do I share that it doesn’t need to be like that without lying?!!!
It’s so important for us as women and parents to talk about our experiences with other women so that these traumas can have an opportunity to move from our bodies. Only then will our communication be free of the past, and, there is absolutely no perfection in this either. Being very real with how you feel and what you experienced can also be very supportive, especially if you have come to an understanding with it all. Young people love hearing your real experiences, so there is no need to lie. Just simply share it in a way that inspires them to see that there is another way, that doesn’t have to be traumatising.
What if my child does not want to have the conversation at all, what should I do then?
Give them lots of space. I had one student who refused to talk to her Mum and she told me that periods were going to ruin her life for the next 50 years. I spoke to her mother about how she just needed lots of space to process what she was feeling. Her mother also started talking about and working through her own traumas around menstruation that she didn’t even realise she had. Twelve months later she said her daughter was like a whole new person; she did get her period and now it’s something that is freely talked about between them both. This may not be the case with everyone of course, and we have to remember there are just so many messages our children are being bombarded with every single day. Often they just need some space to process and come to things in their own time.
How can I reduce their fear around their first time?
This is not something we can control, however again, in addressing our own trauma and fears, the way we communicate on this topic of periods is less laced with the views that pervade society. On a practical note, give them everything they need in preparation. Give them a special little bag with pads a plastic ziplock bag with a spare pair of underwear so they can keep in their school bag for example. And also assure them that the first time they get their period is not likely to be gushes of blood.
I remember being so afraid that I would check my dress every time I stood up at school for about 2 years before I actually got my period. Had I known that it doesn’t usually happen like this I might have been a little more relaxed. Generally, there is some spotting first, that may appear brown in colour. It’s also helpful to let them know about cervical mucus, the white/clear fluid they may see on their underwear in the lead up to menstruation. This may happen for some time before their actual period arrives and is completely normal.
What if my daughters’ friends give her a very different picture of her period and the experience than the one I am sharing?
This is another thing we cannot control and ultimately it will be her choice as to how she wants to experience her menstrual cycle. However, reflection is a very powerful thing, so the way you live and not just speak about having a relationship with your cycle will be rubbing off on her more than you know.
Are there any rituals or celebrations you recommend for honouring or celebrating the occasion?
This is an interesting one. Having a celebration out of the blue if there hasn’t been the building and development of understanding the cycle and its significance prior to the event, will likely be a humiliating experience for a young girl and I have heard many stories of this. So, depending on the situation and where the girl is at, it may be appropriate to have a gathering of significant and supportive women in her life to mark the occasion, even if it is just 1 or 2 women. We so often feel, as women that we are in this alone, however it is very natural for us to be together as women, to support each other and to just be with one another. For a young girl to have the inspiration of women, other than her mother, is so valuable.
Any last words?
For Dad’s, don’t shy away from being involved in your daughter’s life during this transition phase. For her to have the support of this first male relationship, being one that is consistent and forever deepening, is so important. If a father can allow her the space but remain open, very present and very loving as she navigates the changes in this time of transition, he is setting her up for a standard in future relationships that will be very solid and very supportive.
Further reading Raising Girls